Assured Marcus Smith moves another step towards England’s driving seat
For a few precious seconds before the start it felt as if Marcus Smith had Twickenham all to himself. Alone on the halfway line, with England lined up behind him, Australia spread out in front, he bounced the ball up and down while the referee paced around and counted down the last few seconds before kick-off.
Smith looked pretty sure of himself down there under the bright lights, the hardest 80 minutes he has ever played stretching out ahead of him. If he had noticed the 82,000 fans gathered around, hanging on his next step, one would never have guessed it from watching him. He radiates self-confidence.
And then Smith made that first kick and it became clear that, even though he was wearing 10, he was not really playing fly-half, not the way he does for Harlequins anyway.
When Dave Rennie was asked earlier in the week about Eddie Jones’ decision to pick Manu Tuilagi on the wing, he said anyone watching should ignore the number on Tuilagi’s back, because he expected him to swap into the centre. It turns out that the same went for Smith and Owen Farrell, too. Often as not it was Farrell who was in at first receiver while Smith flitted around behind him.
It is all part of Jones’ grand plan. He says he wants his backs to be able to mix and match positions. He calls it his “ensemble attack”. And it doesn’t half make the game complicated.
The one constant is that they all work around Farrell. It is his team, and he is the man who dictates how they play. It looked good when it worked. But it did make it feel a little as if Smith was the kid who has been brought a new car for his birthday but has not yet been trusted with the keys to go with it. Instead he gets to ride in the passenger seat and watch someone who knows better teach him how to handle it. England have the makings of a fine partnership here, and an attack that could carry them through the next World Cup, but it is going to take a while for them both to grow into it.
Jones compared the pair of them to a couple of batsmen opening the innings together for the first time. He says they will get better every time they play together. Which is progress. Last time a gifted fly-half broke up Farrell’s lifelong partnership with George Ford he did not get much of a chance. That was when Jones picked Danny Cipriani on the tour to South Africa in 2018. If they were batting together they might have tried to run each other out.
There is an infamous bit of footage from the third Test of that series that shows Farrell saying “what are you doing?” as Cipriani kicked a raking cross-field kick to Jonny May on the far wing. Cipriani never played again.
In the opening quarter the new partnership looked good. In those moments one could see how it was supposed to work. Smith’s attacking threat seemed to free up Farrell to get on with the simple things he does so well, while he kept one eye on the state of the game, and the shape of the play.
When Farrell is playing alongside Ford it sometimes feels as if England are an orchestra with two conductors, but now that job was Farrell’s alone, while Smith got on with the virtuoso work. There was not as much of that as Smith’s admirers would have liked. But what there was told plenty about how good he is.
Like that first try, which Jones described as one of the best England have ever scored. Freddie Steward finished it but Smith’s fingerprints were all over the build-up.
He started the attack with an up-and-under. Andrew Kellaway spilled the catch and from the following scrum, Smith fed Farrell, then looped around his back before Farrell passed the ball back to him. Then Smith stepped Len Ikitau, made a half-break. England surged forward. A little grunt work up front and Farrell, in at first receiver again, fed Smith. He offered a little shimmer of a dummy to the defender standing in front of him, just enough to help open up the split-second gap that Steward raced through as Smith slipped the ball on to him.
By now Australia were starting to line Smith up. Next time he tried to run that loop-move with Farrell, Hunter Paisami came charging out of the line and knocked him flat on his back. Paisami ended up doing more damage to himself than he did to Smith, who bounced straight back up from it. Moments later Michael Hooper came for him too. This time Smith saw him coming and deftly sidestepped his way out of trouble, although the pass he threw afterwards missed its mark. The kid is plenty tough enough for Test rugby. He even ended up topping England’s tackle count.
In the end it was Farrell who went off injured and Smith was left to run the game his way for the last 15 minutes. He did not crash it. In fact England won that little stretch 10-0. Jones will have taken note.